AD Main Menu

Russian fuel tanker under way for ice-encrusted Nome

Jill Burke

On Wednesday morning, an Arctic tanker from the Russian Far East slipped out of Dutch Harbor, steaming northward for one of the most remote communities in the United States. It will be joined by an American polar icebreaker -- the cutter Healy, a state-of-the-art ship relatively new to the Coast Guard’s fleet.

Together, they will spend days powering through up to 300 miles of sea ice, a first for winter shipping in Alaska. Home-ported in Vladivostok, Russia, the Renda has been commissioned to carry 1.3 million gallons of home-heating fuel and gasoline to Nome. Late Tuesday, it cleared its state port exam, leaving one last bureaucratic hurdle enforced by Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

Deciding whether the Renda and the company that hired it, Vitus Marine, LLC, are equipped to manage a fuel spill in the ice-choked waters off of Alaska’s western coast is no small matter. Vitus Marine operates routinely in Alaska, but not under these conditions. Therefore, it must file and seek approval of an amendment to its existing Oil Discharge Prevention and Contingency Plan.

Before granting the okay, the DEC must be assured that Vitus Marine can adapt its clean-up plans to frigid winter conditions, staging equipment and personnel able to clean petroleum products off ice and from narrow bands of water, instead of the open water and beaches found during summer.

Although it does not yet have DEC’s blessing, the Renda plans to begin heading north. With four days of travel ahead o before arriving in Nome, there’s some time to spare.

With more than 3,500 people, Nome isn’t the smallest Alaska town. But like so many places in Alaska, you can’t drive there. Dog teams, snowmachines, boats and planes are the only way in. Which is why, when a fall fuel barge couldn’t make its planned delivery, an historic plan was hatched to overcome the winter obstacle Mother Nature conjures up year after year.

Rather than arrange for fuel transport by plane, the standard in-a-pinch winter shipping method, Sitnasuak Native Corporation, owner of Bonanza fuel and the distributor with the unmet fuel needs, sought the help a shipper that could get the job done. That would mean finding a tanker capable of slicing a path through the ice and large enough to carry the load -- a routine task for the Russian company RIMSCO, which for years has made a name for itself performing ice-laden voyages in other parts of the arctic.

“We don’t have any concerns at all about the performance of the Renda,” Mark Smith, president of Vitus Marine, said Tuesday. “We are all anxious to see how it performs in the ice and how fast the Healy and the Renda are able to go.”

If the ice’s projected thickness en route to Nome is accurate, the journey could be uneventful. The most recent evaluation placed the greatest depth at 2 feet, Smith said.

Compare that to the Renda’s track record of plowing through more than 9 feet of ice without help.

In June of 2010, the Renda and a companion ice breaking vessel, the Razna, independently navigated the Arctic, according to letter enumerating the vessel’s capabilities for the U.S. Coast Guard, written by a representative of the ship’s owners. The ships crossed ice fields of variable thickness up to 9 feet. In 2011, the Renda made two trips throughout the entire Northern Sea Route “without icebreaker assistance,” according to the letter.

The ship also has a history of being a good Samaritan, helping free a German cargo ship trapped in ice in 2005. Five years earlier, it made a journey similar to the current Alaska voyage. And nearly 12 years ago, according to RIMSCO, the company that owns the Renda, the Russian government asked it to make an emergency fuel delivery to a village in Chukotka. Then, as now, an icebreaker helped break trail. Pushing its way through more than three feet of ice to reach the community, the Renda delivered its load, according to the letter.

Finally, RIMSCO says the Renda has also aided many rescue operations in the Sea of Okhotsk, where cargo ships and fishing boats often get trapped in the ice.

Because of an approaching storm system, the Healy was expected to stay in Dutch Harbor overnight Tuesday and catch up to the Renda sometime Wednesday.

Cutting through a little more than three feet of ice, the Renda is capable of traveling just under 7 mph, while the Healy is capable of punching nonstop through 4 1/2-foot-thick ice at about 3 mph.

Both ships are expected to arrive in Nome Sunday afternoon or evening, provided the Renda gets the remaining clearance needed to complete the mission.

As the duo cuts through the Bering Sea, the DEC will be reviewing public comments, due Tuesday by 5 p.m., about whether the fuel delivery to Nome should be a “go” or a “no go.”

“Those comments are very important to us, we take them very seriously,” said John Ketula, manager of Marine Vessel Section for Industry Preparedness at DEC. “We want to bring this tanker in safely and efficiently. If we were to have a spill, everything needs to be in place to respond.”

Vitus Marine has already pre-staged support equipment and personnel, and plans to rely on tactics already in use in the oil industry’s North Slope operations, where responding to spills in cold weather and ice is already planned for.

“We have a lot of confidence that we will get the approval,” said Smith, whose company, Vitus Marine, has asked for a quicker-than-usual decision, citing community need and exceptional circumstances.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com